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My Brother's Farm "Brooklyn's Eighteenth-Century Lott House"

Farming in Brooklyn today... In his new book My Brother's Farm, Brooklynite Doug Jones chronicles his adventures in pursuit of old-fashioned agricultural pleasures. When Jones noticed a single empty lot amid the old abandoned warehouses of the Brooklyn waterfront, he decided to farm it.

Nicolle and I live near the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. The Promenade is a wide pedestrian walkway built onto the edge of the Heights, overlooking the East River. It's built over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. The Promenade is lined with park benches, and there's lots of pretty gardens behind wrought-iron fences. People walk dogs, push baby strollers, and sit and read or contemplate the view. The beautiful Brooklyn Bridge is off to the right, and, just left of center, the Staten Island ferry sets out from the tip of Manhattan.

During the day, workers from the nearby offices dine al fresco, balancing deli sandwiches on their laps, and sodas on the slanty benches. Kids ride their bikes, groups of tourists take snapshots of the view, and there's a lot of hubbub about.

At night, there's a different vibe. Lovers kiss and eat ice cream, and old folks go for a little stroll.

Manhattan is all lit up, the taillights stream across the bridge, and I can feel the hum that is the energy of New York. The Promenade is a great spot. But the Promenade and the expressway cut off a slice of Brooklyn, the piece closest to the river. This little strip of land is only a few hundred yards wide. It's about seventy-five feet below the height of the Promenade and it's a bit of a mess. Old abandoned piers and warehouses, mostly. And one vacant lot, stuck between a Port Authority building and a Metropolitan Transit Authority electrical substation.

I decided that it would be fun to farm that little plot, so I did a little digging and found out who the owner was, or who it appeared to be, according to City Hall, anyway. The owner listed is a large real estate holding company in Manhattan. I wrote a letter to the president, whose name is Vincent, and followed it up with a phone call.

He was very nice about the whole subject and seemed to like the idea. He said he needed a week to research it. In the meantime, I went down and checked out the lot.

It's a pretty good size, almost an acre. But it was a mess. There's an eight-foot-high fence all the way around it, but this being Brooklyn, there was a big hole cut in it. Some homeless people had been hanging around down there, and there was a lot of garbage around. I dug a few holes to check out the soil, and although there was a lot of broken brick and some wire in it, it wasn't too terrible. There were some earthworms, and the land was supporting a pretty healthy crop of weeds. I didn't find any two-headed crickets or a huge patch of five-leaf clovers or anything, but I thought it might be good to get the soil tested. The results, after seventy-five dollars, were that there were some contaminants from the expressway exhaust and that the soil contained lots of brick and wire. So often it seems that experts merely restate the obvious.

I called Vincent back at the end of the week.

He was very patient with me. Finally he said, "Look. I can't give you permission to go ahead, but I'm not going to stop you. And you might have a problem with the bums there, you know. There's a fence around the place, but they'll just cut a hole in it."

"How do you think I'm getting into the property now? I said. He laughed.

"Look, put your own lock on the fence and be careful. If you can pull it off, you ought to get a medal," and then he hung up.

And that, I figured, was as much of a stamp of approval as I needed or was likely to get. I called my brother and asked for advice. He was very helpful, but after he told me all that would need to be done, I was a bit daunted. I decided to lower my sights a bit and just concentrate on the back half of the property.

The first job would be to clear the land of garbage and weeds. Then I would roll out black plastic, cut out spots to seed through, and till only where the seeds went in. The plastic would keep the weeds down, and this method would keep tilling at a minimum. This was important, since my only tool was a hoe I bought at Sears.

I had mixed feelings about clearing the lot of garbage and then covering it with strips of plastic, but there was no other practical solution. I decided I would plant wildflowers and sunflowers on the unused front portion of my "farm."

Guy lent me his Weedwacker, and I got to work. This is no ordinary Weedwacker, though. No little fishing line spinning around. This thing has teeth and would just as easily become a toe whacker if I wasn't careful. You have to wear this harness-type thing with it, so that it's attached to your body (I forgot to bring the harness the first day, so I looped my belt around the machine, a bad idea). And since it has a gas engine, it gets hot and really loud. I felt like I was wearing a Volkswagen. But it whacks the weeds, all right. It took about eight hours to clear the back half, and it felt great.

Occasionally, I would look out toward the East River and New York's massive skyline beyond. What an amazing place to grow flowers! And how beautiful it will look from up on the Promenade. As I was unstrapping myself from the machine, I looked up at the Promenade and saw a bunch of folks admiring the view. It was a pretty good crowd. Then a few of them waved to me and I waved back. I imagine it must've looked a bit odd. Some nutbar with his belt wrapped around an enormous Weedwacker, his conversion van parked nearby, clearing a vacant lot on a desolate strip of Brooklyn waterfront. But that's one of New York's most incredible qualities--the level of tolerance for the out of the ordinary. I mean, I could dye my hair pink and ride a hippo down Broadway and nobody would really care all that much. "There's a pink-haired guy on a hippo. Gotta get to work." I do hope, though, that people will stop and smell the flowers, if I can coax them out of the ground.

The seeds I ordered cost $94.86. Cosmos, bachelor buttons, zinnias, three kinds of sunflowers, and mixed wildflowers. I was surprised by how much sunflower seeds are, almost $9.00 for a quarter pound. Sunflower seed for birds is about $2.00 for five pounds. I'll have to ask what the difference is. Or try planting birdseed. So far I have cleared out eight bags of garbage, including one hundred and thirteen empty Thunderbird wine bottles (an incredible display of brand loyalty!), seven sneakers, two shopping carts, eleven hubcaps, thirty-four iced tea bottles, five traffic cones, an overcoat, and a cat (not alive). I have laid out six forty-foot rows, four feet wide, three feet apart.

Brooklyn used to be full of farms, and at some point way back when, this little spot was probably under plow. It's very therapeutic to till the soil and guide a few seeds to maturity. But there's a long season yet to go, and there's still a few problems to solve. I need to figure out how to get water to the flowers. There's a hydrant right out front, so perhaps I can ask the local firehouse for a little help. The birds seem to love the wildflower seed I planted, so I'll need to keep an eye out for them. I wonder what other little creatures I'll meet. And I have to fix that hole in the fence. Also, I may be trespassing. I wonder if Vincent will lend me his "get out of jail free" card. It's still early spring, the project is just getting started. Realistically, the best results will be seen next year. But a flower or two on this ground will be a big improvement.

--From My Brother's Farm, by Doug Jones. © July 1999, Doug Jones. Used by permission.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America